If the long-awaited revival of the struggling New Zealand wool industry ever occurs, it will be thanks to Gisborne wool trader and manufacturer Wisewool, and dozens of other fledgling companies like it, doing the neglected jobs of innovating and marketing.
“We developed the needle-punching process and set up a factory to turn our wool into key inputs for bedding and furniture manufacturers.”
Wisewool operates a small factory, geared to expand, at Te Poi, near Matamata, where it produces two furnishing-related products: “buds” or knops for stuffing the likes of pillows and soft toys, and its Wisewool-branded needle-punched blanketing, both of which have applications throughout the furnishing industries and beyond.
The company is tying up supply deals with a cluster of New Zealand manufacturers to have Wisewool products developed in the duvet, bedding and furniture sectors. Wisewool is also optimistic about gaining entry into the lucrative US market and is in discussions with a major American furnishings marketer.
That’s a long way for a family start-up company to come in barely a year, but its history goes back 130 years, and its new wool processing and manufacturing venture sets it up for the imminent recovery in global demand for wool products, Wisewool CEO and founder Henry Hansen says.
“Wool prices have been scraping along in the mud for the past 20 years, and while it seemed obvious what needed to be done to get prices back up again – that is, find out what the market wants, make it from wool and actively market it – nothing much was being achieved at the national level,” Henry says.
“What we wanted to do was raise the amount of money that our farmers, 200 of whom have been our wool-broking clients for 130 years and family members still farming, get for their wool. So we developed the needle-punching process and set up a factory to turn our wool into key inputs for bedding and furniture manufacturers.”
Wisewool has its roots in the first wool scour in the Gisborne district, established by Henry’s grandfather, William Henry Smith. It served the district as W H Smith Wool-Scourers until the over-capacity of the New Zealand scouring industry led to its implosion from 30-odd plants 30 years ago to just three today, all owned by one company.
When W H Smith closed its scour in 1993, it continued to operate as a wool broker and private seller before launching Wisewool in 2022, following a family conflab over what to do about the lousy wool prices.
The Te Poi plant is operating on a small scale with just four staff currently, but Henry says it’s geared to ramp up production as demand grows especially as a result of its recent American sales sortie, conducted by Henry’s nephew, Harry Urquhart-May.
Wisewool uses strong wool fibres measuring between 30 and 40 microns and comes from Romney-based crossbred sheep, mostly from the Gisborne region.
The company is acquiring further machinery that will allow it to process lambs’ wool of between 27 and 28 microns. Farmers are guaranteed a premium above prevailing auction prices of between 50c and $1/kg if their wool is suitable for Wisewool manufacturing.
The wool is scoured and washed in Napier, then sent to Te Poi for processing on one of two lines, one for buds and the other for blanketing, the latter process involves laying a roll of carded wool over itself and allowing the two layers to knit together.
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